The eccentric engineer

E&T on the sad life-journey of George Shillibeer, the inventor of the omnibus who ended up as an undertaker.

We live in straitened times, so the newspapers seem to delight in telling us, and in the January gloom it is perhaps only right to make some belt-tightening resolutions. The chauffeur will have to go and cab fares are now an unaffordable luxury, so it's time to get back on the buses.

That I can get back on the buses is all thanks to an event that happened 180 years ago this year, courtesy of another man who regularly found himself in a spot of financial bother - George Shillibeer.

Shillibeer was an engineer and entrepreneur of a practical bent. Born in 1797, he had spent a brief spell in the Navy during the Napoleonic Wars before deciding on the safer option of apprenticing himself as a coach builder to Hatchetts in London's Long Acre. In 1825, George went to Paris where he worked on the design and construction of a new type of coach intended to carry large numbers of people (based on a similar service already running in Nantes). This gave him an idea, and the following year he was back in London and in business with John Cavill, a coach builder and livery stable keeper in Bloomsbury.

Shillibeer's big idea was no less than the creation of the world's first urban mass-transit system - or buses, as we call them. His first commission came from the Quaker College in Stoke Newington to design and build a 25-seat carriage to take young ladies from the Quaker Meeting House in Gracechurch Street to and from their school. The result was the first school bus, which delighted one visitor, Joseph Pease, so much that he wrote a poem about it. It would be churlish not to reproduce it here, being, as it is, the first poem written about a bus:

"The straight path of Truth the dear Girls keep their feet in.

"And ah! it would do your heart good Cousin Anne.

"To see them arriving at Gracechurch Street Meeting.

"All snugly packed up, 25 in a van."

Shillibeer had a much bigger idea for his machines, however, and was thinking of setting up in business against the Hackney carriages and stagecoaches. These were exclusive and expensive and hence simply unavailable to most of the population of London.

What if he built wide stable carriages to take 20 or so people for a fixed fee on a set route, allowing them to hop on and off wherever they please? Shillibeer initially thought of calling such a machine the 'Economist' but thought better of it and settled on 'Omnibus' - something for which we should all be thankful, as no-one wants to travel atop a 97 horse power economist.

His big break came in 1829, when the Quakers no longer needed their bus following the opening of a Friends house nearer the school. And so the girls of Fleetwood House had the privilege of watching a little piece of history as their bus was repainted in the school yard with the words 'Omnibus' and 'Paddington to the Bank'. The London bus had been born, and on 4 July of that year it made its first fare-paying journey.

And so George Shillibeer's fortune was made?

Not quite. No engineer's life is that simple. George's three-horse omnibuses were soon up against stiff competition. For a start, the Hackney carriages still held a monopoly in the centre of town, so he couldn't go there. Outside this area, smaller buses using just two horses were soon more frequent, cheaper, faster, more manoeuverable and paid a lower mileage duty.

On 4 March 1831, Shillibeer was declared bankrupt. His saviour, oddly enough, came in the form of his competitors. So good was Shillibeer's idea, that London was soon heaving with competing buses, engaged in sometimes lethal races to get passengers, and, six months after his bankruptcy, the operators met to regulate their business appointing Shillibeer as chairman. The number of buses was reduced, timetables were introduced to prevent racing, and routes were allocated to operators which could be bought and sold, allowing companies to grow.

With the ending of the Hackney cab monopoly in 1832, buses were finally allowed into central London, but Shillibeer's three-horse carriages proved too wide for the narrow streets. Never easily dismayed, he invented the long-distance bus route - initially London to Brighton - aboard the unusually named 'New Improved Diligence'. But this, too, was soon outperformed by the new railways. Again, Shillibeer became bankrupt and had to escape to France to avoid his creditors.

On his return, he spent time in the Fleet prison for debt before throwing in his hand with the opposition and joining the London and Southampton Railway Company.

Sadly, an unfortunate incident with 130 gallons of brandy that had somehow escaped the notice of customs brought this job to an end and he was sent to prison again.

From prison, Shillibeer tried to persuade the government to recognise his work in introducing the bus but his entreaties fell on deaf ears.

In desperation, the newly-released Shillibeer turned again to Paris for inspiration and 'borrowed' the idea of the funeral omnibus, combining a hearse with a bus for mourners to reduce the cost of funerals. His last years were spent more quietly and profitably as an undertaker.

He died on 22 August 1866, largely unknown to the thousands who, by then, travelled on London buses every day.

Winner of our last caption competition is Allan Jones, who suggested our Christmas cracker-pulling couple were saying: "Are you sure this is a good way to light the brandy?"

Win!

We've got an IET goodie bag for the best caption suggested for this picture. Send your entries to jherbert@theiet.org by 27 March 2009.

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